There’s an interesting tendency I find among some home studio enthusiasts when I get into a discussion about recording with them: they’re looking for a “magic pill” or “silver bullet” that will suddenly make all of their recordings sound like blockbuster hits.
They just want me to tell them which specific piece(s) of gear to buy (right down to the model numbers) – or even which specific button to push on a specific piece of gear – to make it all turn to magic fairy dust.
Trouble is, great recording just doesn’t work that way.
Sure, I can get geeky about certain pieces of gear just like anyone, and I do have a few (very few) “desert island” pieces of gear that are part of my “signature sound” and I wouldn’t want to live without if I had the choice. But even those pieces of gear are not the answer by themselves. In fact, I suspect I could get pretty much the same sounds with other pieces of gear in their place if I had to.
So what is great recording about, then? For me, it’s about 5 things…
1. Great recording is about great material.
Yep, the quality of the music is the first important factor in how great a recording sounds! If the material is excellent, there’s nothing to “make up for” with the recording. Then, the focus becomes all about capturing that great material and faithfully conveying its meaning or vibe, not about trying to force it to be something it can never be.
If you do your homework on this part, up front, I can guarantee you that the recording process will go more smoothly – and the results will sound better – than if you don’t.
2. Great recording is about a great performance.
This is one area where I’m sometimes flabbergasted by how much some recordists believe that they can “get by” with a lackluster performance, and that any sloppiness or mistakes can simply be corrected later by the gear.
Not so! Not everything can be “made right” after the fact. And if your playing or your singing is not on the mark, then the focus of the recording becomes all about fixing things, which is all left-brain stuff that takes you about as far away from the creative, musical side of the process as you can possibly be.
The most common piece of advice I give to home recordists about performance is to rehearse the performance (both instrumental and vocal) before you ever set foot in the studio, and then rehearse it again in the studio, before you ever hit the Record button.
This notion of rehearsing before recording seems like common sense to me, but it’s a real eye-opener to many who’ve never had anyone take the time to suggest it to them. Then, it’s a huge “ah-ha!” moment.
You want to rehearse for a recording at least as much as you would rehearse for a gig. Why? Because the biggest difference is that gigs are one-time, fleeting events, but recordings are forever. You want to make your recording performance as good as it can possibly be, because whoever listens to it after the fact will hear it exactly the same way, over and over again, till the end of time.
3. Great recording is about what you put in front of the gear.
Gear (and especially, microphones and pickups) captures exactly what it “hears” – nothing more, nothing less.
So if your guitar strings are old and dull, guess what your guitar track is going to sound like? If you’ve got dried sweat all over the body of your guitar from last night’s gig that you haven’t bothered to wipe off, and your arm is making scratchy sounds on it while you strum, guess what’s going to end up on your guitar track?
If you’ve got a buzz in your amp or in your cables, guess what’s going to be added to your instrument’s recorded sound?
If you’re wearing jewelry that’s ratting while you sing, guess what new “percussion” part is going to be added to your vocal track? And just as important, if you haven’t had enough rest and screamed your way through a show you saw last night, guess what’s going to be indelibly captured on your vocal track?
4. Great recording is about the space in which you record.
Just as the quality and condition of your instruments and voice will be captured exactly as they are, so too will the sound of the room in which you record them.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you need a perfectly “tuned” room to get great recordings, but a few minor adjustments can go a long, long way to improving the sound of what goes into the mic.
For example, anything that makes noise – from your heating and air conditioning system, to your computer fan(s) and hard drive(s), to that fridge you keep your cold drinks in beside your recording rig – is going to add that noise to every single track you record with a mic in your studio.
Even if you just take a few, basic steps to reduce these noises (rather than trying to eliminate them altogether), you’ll have less unwanted, non-musical content in your recordings, and they’ll sound better, regardless of which gear you’re using.
Similarly, you want to minimize the impact of reflections and frequency peaks and valleys in your recording space. While this area might take a little more work (and perhaps a little bit of gear – much of which you can make yourself), it will go a long way to improving the permanent sonic quality of your life’s work.
5. Great recording is about how you use the gear.
Your skills in knowing what kind of mic to choose, and where and how to place the mic in front of a sound source, are far more important than which specific make and model of mic you use.
In fact, a super-skilled recording engineer can create a better-sounding recording with nothing but a few $100 Shure SM57s than an unskilled novice with a case full of $3000 Neumann U87s.
And the same is true of more than just microphones; adjusting any front-end compressors, EQs, and mic preamps based on listening to the sound source is far more critical than which models they actually are.
And this how-you-use-the-gear truism applies from initial recording all the way through mixing and mastering.
Oh yeah, there’s that whole gear thing…
Great recording can be about specific pieces of gear or some specific settings. But notice that we’ve already got FIVE things that matter more before we get to the gear itself.
At this point, something like using a ribbon microphone to get a silky-smooth, jazzy vocal, or pushing the “Mega-Crunch” button on your front-end compressor, could actually make a big difference. But if all of the other concerns above are addressed first, that specific choice of mic or compressor button matters less.
The next time you’re tempted to have someone just tell you what specific piece of gear to buy, or which button to push, give yourself some well-deserved credit for your ability to learn and improve your skills as a music creator, performer, and recordist before you reach for your wallet.
I promise you that the time you put into that side of the process will be worth far more than any collection of toys.
So what’s your experience? Any additional pearls of wisdom you’d like to share? Comment below!
About the Author
is an independent music producer and engineer, published author, music career coach, and co-founder of the Azalea Music Group in Nashville. He helps artists and songwriters reach their fullest sonic and emotional impact with the recordings he produces, and also teaches them how to do it themselves. His diverse list of clients includes Davy Jones of the Monkees, Grammy-winning songwriter Don Henry, and international guitar virtuosos Tommy Emmanuel and Muriel Anderson.